30. Poverty in Bangladesh

I have been hesitant about writing this post. The word ‘poverty’ is laden with meaning and often associated with negative stereotyping. As a multidimensional concept, there is much debate concerning its definition and measurement. Who decides on the definition? What is deprivation? Where does our understanding of what people need come from? Are economic indicators enough? What happens when something considered essential for a ‘reasonable’ existence cannot be translated into monetary terms, in the same way that food, clothing and shelter can? How is income and wealth distributed within a nation? What impact does this have on a people’s well-being? How freely and fairly can people participate in deciding their destinies? How safe and secure do people feel? What are the implications of culture on perceptions of poverty? The questions continue. It is imperative that I ask these questions because my principal reason for being in Bangladesh –  i.e. my work placement – revolves around the objective of ‘reducing disadvantage and poverty’. (See posts 25, 48.)

Measurement, development and inequality

Debates about poverty are important because they are inextricably linked to debates surrounding global action, global economic policy and global development policy, all of which have real effects on ‘poor’ people’s lives. (Take for example the Make Poverty History campaign. {P.S. Note: the link to this website is no longer working. See these links instead: related Make Poverty History organisations and Global Call to Action Against Poverty}) Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize-winning economist who grew up in Dhaka, has worked with the United Nations on human development issues, and describes the fundamental idea behind ‘development’ succinctly for me when he says:

Human development, as an approach, is concerned with what I take to be the basic development idea: namely, advancing the richness of human life, rather than the richness of the economy in which human beings live, which is only a part of it.

Creators of development indices grapple with these complex issues and strive to find combinations of measures to best describe human well-being e.g. the UNDP’s Human Development Index (HDI). These have evolved to include a greater number of variables such as ‘inequality’ for example. [On the issue of inequality, I remember watching a documentary on child poverty in Brazil on TV – many years ago now. An observation from Jonathan Hannay of ACER (Association of Support for Children at Risk) struck a chord with me then and has remained with me. He said that a society (like Brazil) which has a wide disparity between rich and poor is in fact more pernicious than a society where there is absolute poverty. There is no honour whatsoever in the former society where the ideal of social responsibility is absent. People with a great deal of wealth and flamboyant lifestyles live side-by-side with homeless street-dwellers and slum inhabitants].

Poverty and progress in Bangladesh

Despite setbacks, considerable economic gains have been made in Bangladesh over the last two decades, together with progress in reducing poverty levels (see post 8 pt. 11). Progress has been made too on the development front (see post 8 pt. 13). Take for example the achievements in certain of the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). It is predicted that Bangladesh will reach the MDG target of halving the numbers living in extreme poverty by 2015. It should be noted though that there has been some criticism of the MDGs on a number of levels e.g. as emanating (imperially) from the global north/west/developed world; for using flawed measurement techniques (in relation to both baseline and progress data); and for putting a focus on end results rather than means of achievement. Take for example Millennium Development Goal 2, which relates to the achievement of universal primary school education by 2015. Achievement is being measured in terms of both enrolment and completion rates. However, without looking at the quality of the educational outcomes (particularly that of ‘learning’) and the longer-term viability and capacity of institutions  (e.g. ministries of education) to provide schooling, together with national policy – and the participation of the population in determining that policy – such ‘achievements’ will not be meaningful or sustainable in the longer term. As discussed in an earlier post (post 8 pt. 13), institutionalising reform at government level is critical in Bangladesh. Otherwise, achievements in relation to the Millennium Development Goals, like those of many groups in civil society, will not bring about meaningful, sustainable change.

Despite the admirable progress that has been made in Bangladesh, it remains a relatively poor country with a high national poverty rate. Some 40% of the population (down from 57% in the early 1990s), or 65.7 million people, still live below the ‘national poverty line’. (This is a World Bank calculated rate: they explain that ‘national estimates are based on population-weighted subgroup estimates from household surveys’.) In terms of the UN HDI, referred to earlier, the 2010 report (from page 148 onwards) places Bangladesh in the ‘low human development’ group, at position 129 out of a total of 169 countries. (To contextualise this, Ireland is in the ‘very high human development group’ and ranks 5th overall). When the index is adjusted (see page 152 of report) to take ‘inequality’ (i.e. inequality between people in a country) into account, Bangladesh rises just 1 place to position 128, attesting to its relatively low gap between rich and poor. (Ireland drops three places). (Incidentally, in light of the discussion above, Brazil drops 15 places, from a position of 73.)

Spatial pattern of poverty

The Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics  and the World Bank,  in collaboration with the World Food Programme, has undertaken an interesting mapping exercise (based on 2005 data). You can read the related report below. I have left it open on page six/seven to show the overview maps at a glance (the darker the colour, the poorer the area). The pattern of spatial differences suggests an east-west divide: this is explained by the World Bank primarily in terms of proximity to growth poles and access to markets. The eastern part of the country has benefited from easier access to both Dhaka and Chittagong. The report also has maps showing the correlation between poverty rates and a number of other factors i.e. education, agricultural wage rate and susceptibility to flooding.

In terms of the urban/rural divide, it is estimated that 80% of the population live in rural Bangladesh, where isolation can mean less access to markets. Furthermore, many of the rural poor live in disaster-prone areas e.g. areas susceptible to flooding that results in crop destruction, or worse (loss of home, spread of disease or even death). Many migrate to the cities in search of better lives, leaving their families behind. What might start out as seasonal migration soon becomes permanent, when migrants’ families move to the city. Unfortunately, life may not be much improved in the wake of moving. In Dhaka city, 30% of people live in slums. To read more about the urban poor in Dhaka see this World Bank report (‘Improving living conditions for the urban poor’). There are audio clips from an interview with the author too.

‘Sangram’ (‘Struggle’): personal perceptions of poverty

Every day I am faced with reminders of what it means to be ‘poor’ in Dhaka. My personal experiences do not fit easily within the spectrum of representations of poverty that dominate the media (e.g. as part of fund-raising campaigns, public relations exercises, education material, literature, film, etc.). These representations sometimes sentimentalise poverty, on occasion even suggesting that there is something ennobling about it. At other times, we are presented with images of starvation and utter deprivation, where one-dimensional, helpless, sad mothers hold equally sad, doe-eyed children. In Aravind Adiga’s novel, The White Tiger, poverty is represented as something that brings out the very worst in people. The main character Balram becomes a monster in his Darwinian struggle to survive: his alternative would have been to become a victim like many Indians of his class. While many of these diverse representations  may present some elements of truth, out of context they run the risk of sensationalising, over-simplifying, demeaning and/or stereotyping. Ultimately, they fail to encapsulate the complexity of any particular situation.

I can only speak about what I have witnessed. In considering how best to describe what I see every day, I think that my thoughts are best summed up in the painting, pictured above: ‘Sangram’ (‘The Struggle’), by Bangladeshi artist Zainul Abedin (1914-1976), known as ‘Shilpacharya’ (‘Great Teacher of the Arts’). Every day I am reminded of ‘the struggle’ people must face to survive here. It might be the rickshaw-pullers lugging their loads; the street vendors carrying their merchandise aloft; commuters battling interminable traffic jams; men, women and children hauling bricks and sand in dangerous construction sites; business owners beating dust from their doors and trying to operate during frequent power cuts; queues of people waiting wearily outside health clinics; crowded, makeshift, bamboo huts stretching along the sides of railway tracks; rows of tailors on public streets sewing on manual machines; riverbanks and lakesides lined with tin shacks on stilts; people clustered along the banks bathing, fishing and washing clothes or cooking utensils, while, a few paces away, others urinate or defecate in already polluted waterways.

Begging and disability

Apart from these images of struggle, not all of which I see every day, begging and disability are the most ubiquitous reminders of what it means to struggle to survive in Dhaka. Because I spend a lot of time commuting, and therefore stuck in traffic jams, I meet these men, women and children face-to-face every day. Some have very severe deformities. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 10% of the population, or 16.4 million people, are disabled in Bangladesh. Dr. Valerie Taylor, a physiotherapist from the UK, set up the Centre for the Rehabilitation of the Paralysed (CRP) over thirty years ago, because of a lack of facilities and awareness.

It is stated on the CRP website that:

As with many Southern countries, there is little awareness in Bangladesh of disability, its causes and consequences. Many ‘traditional’ views on the subject still prevail, especially in rural settings. Disability is often seen as a curse from God, inflicted as retribution for the sins of the disabled person’s parents. Many believe that disability is infectious and that having a disabled person in the house will bring on an ‘evil wind’ after which others will be infected with this condition.

Such perceptions fuel superstitious approaches to treatment by untrained village doctors, leading to further damage. There is no choice then for most disabled people other than migration to cities, begging or prostitution.

Reactions to begging can often be contradictory. There is no social security and a long cultural tradition of the rich giving alms to the poor, which some commentators liken to a form of indirect taxation. It is a religious duty for Muslims – as it is for Christians – to give alms to the needy (in proportion to one’s wealth). Therefore on Fridays, the Muslim Sunday, it is not unusual to see large groups of poor and disabled people begging and waiting around mosques for alms. Yet, there are regular stories in the newspapers about efforts to ‘rid’ the streets of beggars, and calls to make begging illegal.

At first, I was completely overwhelmed by the numbers approaching me daily in search of help. I knew that I would have to develop some kind of coping mechanism if I was to continue to live here. Otherwise, I feared I would not survive the daily psychological struggle. So I decided that I would give to two/three beggars per day, and acknowledge every beggar who approached me, explaining in Bangla that I was a volunteer and not receiving a salary. At least this way I would be recognising each individual, though I felt uncomfortable having that power to ‘choose’ who to give to. Not a day goes by when I don’t feel some sense of uselessness, unease and guilt. It is difficult, and I’m still struggling to work out my approach.

There are those who say that I shouldn’t give at all, that the money will go to gang-leaders and that by doing so I am perpetuating a system of domination and abuse. It is said that these gangs round up poor, vulnerable and disabled people to beg, in return for ‘protection’. There are stories of women borrowing babies to appeal to people’s sympathies. Yet when I don’t give, I feel that I am perpetuating a story of another system: that of global income disparity in which rich, white people don’t care about poor, brown people, where money equals worth and its lack equals worthlessness. On bad days, I feel like the embodiment of the anti-hero in that story, a heartless, rich Westerner, because in a country like Bangladesh, even my volunteer allowance makes me ‘rich’.

Of course neither story is entirely true. And I’m not advocating that giving money to the poor is the answer, or that money isn’t better spent on sanctioned projects. But I also know that there are ‘genuine’ street beggars, and I think too about what might happen to those beggars who have nothing to show to their ‘managers’ at the end of a day. There are times when I want to scream because it feels as if people see me not as a person but as a resource. I feel completely hopeless and think that anything I could do or say is useless in light of the scale of the problem. But then I try to remember that I came here to be a part of an organisation that is working (hopefully) on the bigger solutions.

And there are many light-hearted moments when encounters are more positive than those described above, when an exchange takes place and a connection is made, when we ‘see’ each other as fellow human beings, without the opposing binary labels of rich/poor, white/brown, giver/taker, powerful/powerless, etc. For example, I might be laughing with a baby, whose little fingers are entwined in mine, asking the mother about her age and name and the mother too might show interest in where I am from and why I am here, etc. And on those occasions I am sorry when the traffic begins to move and our conversation and connection is cut short.

An example of ‘relative’ poverty

Not all my encounters with ‘poorer’ people are in the context of begging. I meet many people everyday who just want to talk to me and never ask me for money. On the contrary, they insist on bestowing upon me acts of generosity. (See post 13.) (This is why I find it difficult to talk about ‘poverty’ in the context of such an extraordinary ‘wealth’ of generosity and kindness.) And sometimes I am reminded about how subjective and relative poverty is. For example, one day I was chatting to a girl on the street who invited me to her house to meet her family. This was a one-roomed, tin hut in a crowded cluster of similar housing. Soon I was sitting on a mat drinking tea surrounded by her mother, sisters, granny and aunts. One of the sisters, an extraordinarily beautiful girl, was brushing her hair and as usual I was envying such lovely, glossy, wavy, waist-length hair. It wasn’t long until we were having a ‘girly’ chat about hair and the problems with humidity, etc. Then the talk turned to family and predictably they wanted to know my marital status and how many children I had. When I said that I wasn’t married and didn’t have any children they were all quite visibly upset for me. The older women were shaking their heads and commiserating with me and one of the younger women even offered to have a baby for me – jokingly (I think). It was a strange feeling to be sitting there as an object of pity. I may have entered this house initially feeling sorry for these women, living in what I perceived to be conditions of poverty and hardship, but in their eyes it was I who was tragically poor. A line from Rabindranath Tagore’s Stray Birds came to mind:

The sparrow is sorry for the peacock at the burden of its tail.

(For more on Tagore see post 29.)

The future

There is no doubt that, despite remarkable progress, Bangladesh still faces considerable development challenges. Many analysts agree that the progress made to date may not be sustainable if weaknesses in governance are not addressed. What might have worked in the past to ameliorate these weaknesses is unlikely to work in the future (e.g. insulating the fledgling garment industry through bonded warehouses – see post 52). Bangladesh’s progress has also been partly due to strong civil society organisations. These are now demanding greater accountability, so that governance failings do not prevent future gains, or worse, reverse those gains made in the past two decades. In order for Bangladesh to attract inward investment, it needs a more stable political environment and a less corrupt public sector. Ultimately, the social structures and power relations that have generated and continue to generate poverty need to be examined. The majority of Bangladeshi people have enough challenges to face e.g. environmental challenges (see post 53), without the burden of a dysfunctional bureaucracy.

Below are a few photographs of the daily reminders of ‘struggle’. (Unfortunately, since Cooliris was acquired by Yahoo my lovely photo walls no longer work. 😦 I have replaced them with links to a web album until such time as I can find a better solution.)


Click on image below and then on the top-left image (31 photographs). Enjoy!

1.Community on lake edge in affluent Banani

In the report below you can view some poverty maps for Bangladesh (as referred to above). The exercise was undertaken by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics and the World Bank,  in collaboration with the World Food Programme, and is based on 2005 data. The report is open on page 6/7 to give you a quick overview of spatial variation:  the darker the colour the poorer the region. Use the little sliders on the right and left sides to navigate between pages.

A note in 2021: The report is back! So, you can ignore the 2015 note below.

A note in 2015: Thanks everyone for letting me know about ‘missing’ report above. This is a recent browser issue. The solution for Google Chrome follows. 
1. Do you see a small, silver shield icon on top right side of address bar?

2. Click on shield. Choose ‘Load unsafe script’. This will allow content to load.

The script is safe! It’s ‘mixed script’ because I used code and elements from outside WordPress to create certain personalised features, like the inclusion of this ISSUU document.

P.S. In Firefox, shield is at left side of address bar. In IE, click on message bar at top and ‘allow blocked content’. Best viewed in Google Chrome though!


4 responses to “30. Poverty in Bangladesh

  1. A great insight. Knowledgeable, fact-based and yet personal too. Even your reply to the comment below adds to the overall picture. I can feel your sensitivity and personal struggle. I hope it eased as time passed.

  2. Very good survey about Bangladesh. I think now poverty remove day by day from here. Poverty is not misadventure for us its lack of planing and trap on human in our country. So we survived that long generation.

    • Thank you for your comment Rubons and sorry for the delay in replying. Yes, I have been following progress in poverty alleviation in Bangladesh since writing this post. It is indeed heartening to see the advances in so many indicators. I see that in terms of the UN HDI (referred to above) Bangladesh has now (2015 report) moved into the lower echelons of the ‘medium development group’ at position 142 out of a total of 188 countries. It is good too to see that the percentage living below the national poverty line has dropped from 40% (as quoted in the post above) to 31.5%, according to the World Bank. However, of course, at 31.5%, this rate indicates that there are still over 50 million people living below the national poverty line. Hopefully, the momentum of the past decade can be sustained in order to meet the continuing challenges ahead. Best wishes, Ann

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